Giving birth to twin boys in my forties yielded me exactly three epiphanies. The first epiphany was that it must be great to be a brilliant, nurturing, and shockingly rich fertility doctor. The second consisted of my realization that what I had learned in law school about sleep deprivation as a form of torture was utterly, horribly true. And the third epiphany was simply this: that at the age of forty-two, I was old.
I spent my pregnancy watching one episode after another of A Baby Story on The Learning Channel. It seemed that all of the young pregnant women on the show spent about six hours a day power-walking and nibbling on energy bars. Meanwhile, I was so huge that I could barely towel myself dry.
They say that once a woman gives birth, she instantly rhapsodizes about how great her pregnancy and birthing process were. Unfortunately, my brain is unequipped to idealize anything. I remember exactly what I said as my husband Richard drove me and the twins home from the hospital: “I know this is a terrible thing to even be thinking about, because we have two beautiful babies in the back seat. But here it is—I never want to be pregnant again.”
And Richard—who at the age of forty-five had already been told (incorrectly) by a lipid specialist that he could expect his first heart attack by the age of fifty—put his hand on mine and said, “Thank God.”
It’s true that waiting until midlife before becoming a parent carries with it certain advantages. Richard and I didn’t meet until we were in our late thirties, and by that time, we each pretty much knew who we were. Neither of us was ever going to gaze at the other over a crib and say, “Whoa, this is too much. I need to find myself. I should go to Hollywood and audition for a commercial. No, I should go to Paris and write a novel in a café. No, I should look up my old flame from sleep-away camp.”
But for better or worse, most twenty-something parents probably don’t spend an afternoon agonizing in the office of their trusts and estates lawyer, wondering who to list in their wills as their children’s guardian in the event of their own deaths.
Our sons are now in fifth grade, and from their perspective, it’s utterly normal that Dad has to line up his half-dozen medications every morning and that, underneath the hair dye, Mom’s hair is totally gray. Maybe one day our boys will even appreciate the fact that, unlike any of their friends, they have a father who actually remembers where he was when Kennedy got shot.
For a while we lived in a small town in the Adirondacks. There I got used to pretending not to cringe when all of my kids’ friends had moms who were seemingly younger than thirty. When the nice woman behind the counter in the bagel store assumed that I was my children’s grandmother, I managed to act totally calm as I corrected her. Just outside the door, though, I alarmed my kids by laughing like a maniac on the sidewalk.
Now we live in New York City. Here, parenthood arrives at many different ages.
Interviewer: Ma’am, why did you move to New York? For the culture? The job opportunities? The many institutions of higher learning?
Me: No. I moved here so I would no longer be regarded as the freakish old witch with little kids and a functioning uterus.
Once in a while, though, our children do display some anxiety over the fact that not only are their parents getting on in years, but most of our closest friends and relatives are in their fifties and sixties, too. Every now and then the boys carefully recite the will provisions that outline who gets custody of them if we die. And who gets custody of them if that person dies. And if the person after that dies.
At bedtime one night when he was seven, my son Henry asked if I would be old before he became a grown-up.
“No,” I said, starting to calculate. “When you turn eighteen, I’ll be—sixty.” Oh, my gosh, I thought. I’ll be ancient when he reaches adulthood.
“Wait,” he said. “When I’m eighteen, I’ll just be in college. What about when I’m twenty-four? Will you be old then?”
“Of course not,” I said, trying to sound light and girlish. “When you’re twenty-four, I’ll be sixty-six.”
Parental liars enjoy a real advantage when trying to deceive a small person who has never heard of Social Security. It’s entirely possible I could have persuaded my son that at age sixty-six I would only be starting my international tennis career.
“So when will you be old?” persisted Henry. “I mean, how old will I be then?”
“Well,” I said, beginning to babble a little out of sheer nervousness. “When I’m eighty, I’ll definitely be old, and at that point you’ll be—uh—thirty-eight. Which isn’t young at all! You’ll be totally on top of things by then! Of course,” I mused, “some people get kind of old before they turn eighty. Some people are really old by the time they’re seventy-three. And sometimes you can see pictures of people from a hundred years ago, and they all look old by the time they’re forty. And if you get too much sun, then you can have a really old face by the time you’re thirty.”
Henry turned in his bed and faced the wall. “I think I’m going to have a nightmare tonight.”
Richard and I can’t go back in time and meet when we’re twenty-two. We can’t zap ourselves full of the energy we don’t have. A good day for Richard is one where he doesn’t need a nap. A good day for me is one where my right knee doesn’t hurt.
But somehow we have the great good luck to live in a time and place where it’s possible to spend a couple of decades trying various careers, dating different people, and then, after all that—to find love and have children.
Raising kids at midlife isn’t easy. It may not be the ideal way of doing things. But most of the time, it’s a joy.
You know I’m right there with you as I had my son at 39 and daughter at 42.
Hi Susan. Your essay rang true. I too was id’d as the grandma by the 20 something nannies in the park and was told additionally that my kid would be a spoiled brat because he was an only child. This by total strangers! My son was born the day after my 41st birthday and despite the occasional frantic computations-same as you- of how old I’d be if I were ever to actually become a grandma, being an older parent is a joy. And you have the added benefit of having 2 kids with one delivery and that is a 40 something blessing for sure! Great essay.
Thank you, Kathy! Yes, it’s amazing the things that people will say to the parents of young children. But of course, we know that those remarks reflect only how they feel about themselves and what is possible for them. So sorry you had to hear that malarkey about what happens to an only child – that’s so ridiculous!